Horses with Jobs: Rodeo Pick-Up Horses
By Margaret Evans
Job Description: Usually working in pairs, pick-up horses and riders are responsible for assisting the rodeo competitor to get off the bucking animal safely.
Rodeo pick-up rider Gary Rempel was born in 1951 in Saskatchewan where his father managed the Matador Ranch near Kyle. His father rodeoed and did pick-up, and that exposure influenced young Gary on the thrill, challenge, and responsibility of picking up the competition cowboys after their saddle bronc or bareback rides had timed out or they had been bucked off.
He learned much of it himself, but greatly valued working with veteran Wayne Vold who helped him hone his skills on how to turn horses back when they buck, making them buck better, and earning more points. Now at the top of his game with 35 years of experience, Rempel has been selected to work the Canadian Rodeo Finals a record-setting 19 times, was chosen as the Canadian Cowboy of the Year in 2009, and has been selected nine times to pick up at the National Finals Rodeo.
But for Rempel, it all comes back to the quality and personality of the horse that makes his job so enjoyable.
Gary Rempel, riding the palomino, says speed, quickness, attitude, and focus are essential qualities in a pickup horse. He enjoys riding a quality horse that really likes his job. Photo: Mike Copeman Photography
“I need a horse that’s got a little bit of size, around 15.3 to 16 hands,” he says. “And they need to have speed, which is very important. They have to have attitude, personality that they can take a little bump, and they need to be able to take the pressure and the noise of the crowd. It can be easier for some than others. They need to be focused. Most horses will get used to everything but some take a while. Every horse is different. I use Quarter Horses.”
While he trains his own horses, he said that a well-broken ranch horse is ideal as they have already been exposed to roping, noise, livestock, and the closeness of other horses.
On a typical rodeo day, there’s not a lot for his trained horses to do until performance time. He keeps five horses on hand. Two are for the bareback competition when the need is for a horse a little faster, and for the saddle bronc competition he has two horses that are a little bigger. He said that speed and quickness are essential skills. He also has a young horse in training.
“If you get out of position a little bit with a horse that’s bucking and you’re not quite ready and the bucking horse has the jump on you, you need to have a horse that gets up there as quickly as possible. I have a younger horse with me all the time, a pick-up horse in training. When I get my horses ready, I also get the colt saddled up. We have to sort stock for the rodeo and we have to run stock through the chutes. That’s the work that my colt does. He gets introduced to all kinds of things.”
Pick-up riders work in pairs and, of all Rempel’s partners, he values working with his brother Wade. They read each other’s minds and know where each is going to be and what each is going to do so that the pick-up is safe and effective. Safety is everything and picking up with a good partner is a big deal to him. The actions of a bucking horse are lightning fast with a lot of power.
“We wear protective pads underneath chaps. If you get kicked, it can go right through all that and cut skin. It doesn’t happen a lot but stuff happens. In Denver last year, I picked up a bareback rider. I turned away, my horse stumbled and down we all went.”
He said that one of the things that really helps is understanding livestock, horses, and the way they react. The biggest thing is knowing what that horse is going to do before it does it so that you can give it the space it needs. These are split-second decisions.
“Some horses really like their jobs and it’s so much nicer. Others don’t like it as much and it’s more challenging. But it’s better if the horse really wants to do it. I’ve got two or three horses that you can feel they really want to move. There are times when your horse has done his job so well that, at the end of the day, you can’t even remember being on that horse.”
Related: Roping 101: Cowboy School
Pickup riders work in pairs, and because bucking horses are fast and powerful, the riders must be well-mounted to stay safe and effective. Photo: Dreamstime/Petroruth